See No Evil:|
The Strange Case of Christine Lamont & David Spencer
by Isabel Vincent,
Wrong Time, Wrong Place:
How Two Canadians Ended Up in a Brazilian Jail
by Caroline Mallan,
Post Your Opinion
|On The Trail Of The Truth
by Merilyn Simonds
ONEPECULIARITY OF non-fiction lies in the perception of truth. Thoughostensibly based on objective fact, a book that tells a "true" storyis less believable, in some ways, than a novel. In the imagined world offiction, there is only one possible version of events - the author`s.With non-fiction, however, a reader never forgets that there are manyways to tell a story. We come to the novel willing to be seduced, but weapproach the recreated landscape of nonfiction with our eyes narrowed and ourcynicism on alert: can any one writer possibly get it right?
Rarely is this anomaly of non-fiction so wellillustrated as with the recent release of two books about Christine Lamont andDavid Spencer, the Canadian couple convicted of kidnapping a Braziliangrocerychain magnate in December 1989, and sentenced to 28 years in prison. Wrong Time, Wrong Place? was written by Caroline Mallan, the Toronto Star reporter who, in a front-page story in July1993, first documented evidence that the pair might, in fact, be guilty, afterfour years of stories in the Canadian media had portrayed them as innocentvictims caught up in a South American scam, or at worst, naive and peripheralparticipants in a righteous crime. The author of See No Evil is IsabelVincent, the Globe and Mail`s Latin America bureau chief since 1990. Although bothwomen are newspaper ournalists and both tell virtually the same story -the facts, as they recount them, vary only in minute details - theirbooks are a graphic example of the ambiguities of the non-fictionwriter`s art. Mallan tells the story chronologically, from the first signs ofrevolutionary intent - apparently, young Christine`s tendency to wearblack and David`s love of punk rock music - to the vigil in Langley, BritishColumbia, that marked the Canadians` fifth anniversary in a Brazilian prison.Mallan makes it clear from the beginning that she believes the two are guilty:her story is really about Christine`s parents, Marilyn, a pianist, and Keith, asurgeon, who waged a sophisticated media campaign for their own personal gain,that is, their daughter`s release. Mallan details at great length thedistortions in the Lamonts` press releases, culminating with her own revelationof the documents found in the aftermath of a Nicaraguan bombing. The duplicateidentification and forged letters on pilfered stationery seemed to prove thatChristine and David lied about their trip to Nicaragua and Brazil and were, inall probability, willing partners in a worldwide leftist organization thatfunded the struggle for freedom by kidnapping some of South America`swealthiest citizens.
Surely mendacity - whether by the kidnappers ortheir nice upper-middle-class parents - is not the real storyhere. I couldn`t help but question Mallan`s intentions: the tone is spitefuland indignant, as if the journalist felt compelled to defend her profession`shonour by denigrating Christine and David`s social conscience and presentingthe Lamonts` efforts in the most melodramatic terms.
At first, it seemed that Isabel Vincent was arrangingthe facts to tell a similar tale: the duping of the Canadian media, thoughrather than blaming the Lamonts, she chastises the nation`s journalists forlaziness and incompetence. Fortunately, Vincent doesn`t leave it at that. Sheunderstands that at the root of our willingness to believe the best ofChristine Lamont and David Spencer lies Elitism - educated white middle-classkids can`t really be international terrorists and racism. Canadians believedwithout question that Brazilian jails were hellholes and Brazilian justice wascorrupt, simply by virtue of their being Brazilian.
Vincent knows better. She lives in Brazil; she speaksthe language. She recounts the outrage of Brazilians following the Canadianaccusations: ironically, Lamont and Spencer may have been victims of the sameprejudice, joining a violent struggle for freedom predicated on cliches ofrepression. In a fascinating excursion into the background of the story,Vincent traces the evolution of the social activist movement in Latin and SouthAmerica, putting into perspective the paranoia that developed worldwide whenthe Red Brigade, the Basque separatist movement ETA, the Sandinistas, the IRA,the Peronists, and even the Squamish Five, decided to bomb and kidnap theprivileged to their senses.
Lamont and Spencer`s story, ultimately, is a complexone, interesting not because most of the media got it wrong, but because thesetwo Canadians represent at once our compassionate desire to help and ourpriggish insistence that we can fix other people`s problems (especially thoseless advantaged than ourselves) if only they`ll let us.
At the end of her book, Vincent intimates that thereis yet another story within this story: how social conscience
is transformed into terrorism. In her interviews withLamont and Spencer, they emerge not as innocents abroad, but as sophisticated,committed, intelligent activists who are still keeping a few facts tothemselves.
In the shadowy world of truth, it takes a very skilledwriter to overcome our doubts. Heavy-handed browbeating doesn`t work.Vincent knows better: she establishes her credentials and biases, and we putourselves gratefully in her hands. She acknowledges that hers is not the finalword in this story, and with that, she wins our belief and trust.